Animal Planet Stars You Might Not Know Died

The following article references suicide.

When Animal Planet launched in 1996, the fledgling network focused primarily on nature documentaries, teaching viewers about exotic creatures through co-productions between the BBC and the Discovery Channel. It has undergone several shifts in branding over the years, including a major 2008 campaign that saw the network shift toward reality television and adopt the slogan "Same planet, different world" in an attempt to goose ratings, pun very much intended. "We didn't just need a refresh, we needed a re-boot," said Animal Planet's Director of Communications Brian Eley, per PR Week.

One thing has remained consistent about Animal Planet over the years — their ability to make stars out of both humans and animals. Some of their biggest hits, like "Meerkat Manor," are driven almost entirely by following animals as though they were people. Other reality shows like "The Last Alaskans" or "Call of the Wildman" follow eclectic humans who have connections to nature — living on a wildlife preserve in the case of the former, and running a nuisance-animal capture business for the latter.

Unfortunately, not all stars of Animal Planet's biggest hits are still with us; the network has lost some of their leading personalities, both human and animal. Read on for a roundup of Animal Planet stars you may not know have passed away.

Scott LaCrosse from North Woods Law

Scott LaCrosse, a conservation officer in New Hampshire, starred on "North Woods Law." The long-running Animal Planet show has aired 16 seasons and counting, depicting the adventures of the game wardens who patrol the woods in Maine and New Hampshire, helping with search-and-rescue missions, fending off dangerous animals, and keeping wildlife safe from poachers. LaCrosse's most memorable appearance on the show came when he helped search for a missing teen; the wardens were the ones who found the body, confirming that he had died by suicide. LaCrosse comforted the family and, according to the Concord Monitor, was instrumental in securing their permission to feature the story on the show.

LaCrosse retired in 2018 and died shortly after, at the age of 54. Fellow conservation officer Col. Kevin Jordan, who worked with him, told WMUR, "I never dreamed that eight months later I would really lose him. It was tragic."

LaCrosse was a humble man who avoided the attention of the spotlight, even though he appeared on the reality show. Jeff White, the father of the teen whose suicide was featured on "North Woods Law," told the Concord Monitor that LaCrosse never even watched it. "He knew what he did, and he didn't need to see himself on TV," White said, recalling that he'd even offered to lend LaCrosse a copy of the episode on DVD.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

Steve Irwin from The Crocodile Hunter

Steve Irwin's name is synonymous with Animal Planet. The affable Aussie's friendly face and good-natured shouts of "Crikey!" meant audiences were in for a wild hour of television, full of fantastic beasts, fascinating facts, and thrilling feats of what seemed to be superhuman croc-wrestling strength. "The Crocodile Hunter" was a massive hit for the network, spawning feature films and several spinoffs.

While filming in 2006, Steve, was killed by a stingray at the age of 44. His wife, Terri Irwin, told Access Hollywood (via The Hollywood Reporter), that, although the attack had been caught on camera, all footage was destroyed. The documentary, called "Ocean's Deadliest," was ultimately aired without showing the attack. "We're very proud that Steve's last documentary is going to air," his wife said. She later admitted that the adventurous Australian fully expected to die young, but possibly in a car crash or other accident. "I never thought it would be an animal; he never thought it would be an animal," she told Nine News (via CNN). 

Steve's kids Bindi and Robert Irwin have now taken up their dad's legacy. The family stars in a series called "Crikey! It's the Irwins," and Robert told The New York Post that the old show helps him remember his father. "I'm very lucky in the way that I've had so much of my life captured on camera," he said. "So really as the memories you have of Dad start to fade, you can always look back at the old footage."

Numerous meerkats from Meerkat Manor

"Meerkat Manor" was a British series that was exported to countries around the world, making international sensations out of several families of meerkats who lived in the Kalahari desert. The show was essentially a soap opera; viewers were enthralled as they watched the meerkats fall in love, get in squabbles, raise young, and keep each other safe. Unfortunately, they were animals who faced dangers from the wild, and many of the "characters" featured on the show have died.

Shakespeare was a main character on the first season of the show, but then he didn't come back; Today noted in 2006 that the audience mourned his loss, which wasn't depicted onscreen. Flower, the "meerkat matriarch" whose family made up one of the central groups on the show, was bitten by a cobra in 2007 and died. "The desert has lost its favorite rose," mourned the narrator. The Los Angeles Times noted that the show's honest depiction of her passing led viewers to complain online, quoting one fan as writing, "My children have been totally traumatized by Flower's death. They cried themselves to sleep... My daughter said she felt like I had died."

The following year, a meerkat named Rocket Dog was accidentally run over by a truck. It was unclear whether someone on the production team had killed him or someone else; Animal Planet spokesperson Tahli Kouperstein explained (via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette), "In the Kalahari, trucks just keep going. So we don't know whose truck it was."

Neal James from Call of the Wildman

From 2011-2014, Neal James starred on Animal Planet's "Call of the Wildman." James was nicknamed "Banjo Man," and he assisted his best friend, Ernie Jones Jr. — "Turtleman" — with the latter's business capturing nuisance animals. Turtleman often did the dangerous stuff, while Banjo Man provided commentary and support from the sidelines. In an early incident, Jones was bitten by a turtle while James looked on. "Sometimes I think Ernie cares more about catching this next big turtle than he cares about his own health," James deadpanned.

He also released bluegrass music throughout his time in the spotlight, including a song dedicated to his friend and co-star, fittingly called "The Turtleman Song." James told Bluegrass Today that he especially loved the genre because of its subject matter, explaining, "I really appreciate the music and the style and the way it's laid back and talks about the Lord and about good and pure things. I just love every aspect of it."

James died in 2019 from natural causes, per People, at the age of 55. After his death, Turtleman shared a video on YouTube collecting some of their favorite memories together. He also relayed a story about James' insistence that he'd soon be passing on. "He said, 'Don't you worry about that,'" Jones recalled. "'I'm going to a better place. I'm waiting to go back. Jesus promised me.' He said, 'I'm gonna be up there playing another banjo song, with God.'"

Ruby from North Woods Law

Ruby was a search dog who appeared regularly on Animal Planet's "North Woods Law" as the canine partner of Lt. Bill Boudreau. Regularly helping her partner on search-and-rescue missions, Ruby used her canine smarts to help locate not just lost hikers but also hard-to-find evidence like bullet casings. An Animal Planet video dedicated to the pup noted that she and Boudreau formed the oldest team on the force, having been together for more than seven years. "Ruby's always there to lend a nose," the video explains.

Ruby died in 2019 after being sick and losing weight for a few months. "We weren't able to get her any better, and we had to make that tough choice, which was a lot harder than I thought it was gonna be," Boudreau recalled on an episode of "Warden's Watch" that was dedicated to Ruby. In a statement shared by New Hampshire Fish & Game on Facebook, Col. Kevin Jordan recalled the dog's dedication to her duties, which led her to help find people who Jordan thought might not have been rescued in time without her. "While we will dearly miss this team's skills and abilities," he wrote, "it is little Ruby's personality and energy level we will miss the most here at Fish and Game."

Eric Hannett, another star of the show who was often paired with Ruby and her partner, tweeted, "Patrols with Lt. Boudreau won't be the same without you!"

Chris Wilson from Lone Star Law

Sgt. Chris Wilson starred on "Lone Star Law," Animal Planet's hit show about Texas game wardens. According to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Facebook page, he was a member of the team for more than 16 years; according to the agency, Wilson primarily focused on environmental crimes, but he also occasionally assisted on investigations involving "threats against game wardens and park police officers." In a Season 1 episode of the show, Wilson memorably assisted with executing a search warrant against a man accused of illegally shooting a deer with an arrow in a residential neighborhood.

Wilson passed away in August 2021 from COVID-19, according to local news site KHOU. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Executive Director Carter Smith said in a statement on Facebook, "Chris was a big man with a big heart, who left a positive impression and impact for all those fortunate enough to have worked and spent time with him over his 16 years of exemplary service to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and our grateful state." In recognition of his time on "Lone Star Law," Animal Planet told TMZ, "Our deepest sympathy goes out to Chris' family and loved ones at this difficult time."

Bob Harte from The Last Alaskans

Bob Harte starred on "The Last Alaskans," which began on Animal Planet before moving to the Discovery Channel. Harte was the patriarch of one of the central families on the show, some of the last people allowed to live within Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Harte's official cast bio notes that he dropped out of college and hitchhiked to Alaska, living off the wintry wilderness for more than 40 years.

Harte died in 2017 from cancer, per his obituary in the Daily News-Miner. His obituary recalled what a wild life he led, listing out all of the near-death experiences that Harte survived: "wrecking his motorcycle, crashing his plane, accidentally shooting himself, falling off his cabin wall, swamping his boat in the ocean, crashing another plane, getting run over on his motorcycle, having brain surgery, crashing another plane." His family noted that Harte was aware he was in his final days, and he attended his own funeral the night before he passed, telling those gathered, "You are my family and I love you dearly."

Discovery Channel exec Michael Gara told Reailty Blurred that the crew went up a few weeks before the actual season began shooting so that they could capture Harte's final days. "His connection to that place is so deep and meaningful that it was something that it was important for us to make sure we covered in a really respectful way," Gara explained. Harte's death was covered on the show in 2018.

Mert the goose from The Zoo

Mert the goose, who lived and worked at the Bronx Zoo, starred on Animal Planet's "The Zoo." He patrolled the grounds of the zoo's Children's Section primarily with female zookeepers, because he reportedly got aggressive around men, according to People. Mert lived at the zoo for almost 30 years, waddling around like he owned the place. After an episode of "The Zoo" aired in which the zookeepers discovered that Mert had developed a tumor, the zoo's director Jim Breheny tweeted, "For those of you watching THE ZOO & asking about Mert the goose, he is still doing fine. He's almost 2 years older than when the episode was filmed, he's slowing down a bit — but still doing great for his age."

Unfortunately, a mere two weeks later, The Bronx Zoo announced on Instagram that Mert had been euthanized due to the tumor mentioned on the show. ​​"He was a Bronx Zoo icon for 30 years and will be missed," they wrote. Animal Planet remembered Mert in a video posted on Facebook, rounding up some of his most adorable moments. "You'll be missed by so many," they shared. 

Jim Fowler from Wild Kingdom

Jim Fowler hosted "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom," a groundbreaking wildlife docuseries that has aired multiple incarnations since the '60s, including a revival on Animal Planet in the 2000s. Fowler's love of animals made him an icon to millions of viewers like Jim Breheny, Director of the Bronx Zoo, who spoke of Fowler's impact on Twitter. He wrote, "Growing up this kid from the Bronx & millions of others spent every Sunday night w/ him & ⁦@WildKingdom⁩. He was a force & role model in my career choice." He shared a photo of the two of them together, adding, "As a kid I could not have imagined becoming his friend."

Fowler was also a regular on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" and then later "The Late Show With Conan O'Brien," bringing exotic creatures to television audiences late at night. He was a master at joking around with the hosts, too. "The hair is very similar to yours, when you look at it closely," he teased Conan O'Brien, comparing a sloth's fur to the funnyman's iconic coif. In one memorable moment with Johnny Carson, a Goliath beetle took off unexpectedly, rousing shrieks from the audience. "I didn't know he could fly," Fowler deadpanned.

He passed away in 2019 at the age of 89, per his obituary in Variety. "Wild Kingdom" co-star Peter Gros honored him on the show, recalling all he learned from the conservationist about the importance of caring for nature.